We look ahead to the Northern Area Final first leg between Preston North End and Walsall.The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Area Final gets under way with the first leg on Wednesday night, when Preston North End host Walsall at Deepdale.
The Lilywhites are unbeaten in their last 10 matches in all competitions, with their latest triumph coming over Norwich City in the FA Cup Third Round last Saturday. Simon Grayson’s men sit third in the Sky Bet League 1 table, three points off the summit with a game in hand.
Walsall are 10 places behind Preston in the league in 13th place, and they lost 2-0 to Coventry City most recently, which was only their third defeat in their last 14 outings across all competitions.
ROUTE TO THE AREA FINAL
Preston have endured a relatively comfortable run to the Area Final, scoring seven goals in four matches, but they did need a penalty shoot-out victory to confirm their place in the last four.
PNE ARE READY: Goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann feels Preston are ready for the tough tests that face them in the two legs of the Northern Area Final.
Their Trophy campaign began with a 1-0 win over Shrewsbury Town that was backed up with a 3-2 triumph against Port Vale in the Second Round. They then knocked-out Oldham Athletic in dramatic circumstances, winning 10-9 on spot-kicks having drawn 2-2 after 90 minutes, before dispatching Notts County 1-0 last month.
First Round: Preston 1-0 Shrewsbury Town
Second Round: Preston 3-2 Port Vale
Area Quarter-Finals: Oldham Athletic 2-2 Preston (9-10 on penalties)
Area Semi-Finals: Notts County 0-1 Preston
Walsall also needed penalties to set-up the two-legged tie with Preston, to keep alive their hopes of making a first-ever appearance at Wembley Stadium.
Dean Smith's men beat Tranmere Rovers 5-4 on spot-kicks in the Area Semis, after seeing off Rochdale and Sheffield United 1-0 in the earlier rounds.
First Round: Bye
Second Round: Rochdale 0-1 Walsall
Area Quarter-Finals: Walsall 1-0 Sheffield United
Area Semi-Finals: Tranmere Rovers 2-2 Walsall (4-5 on penalties)
This meeting will be the second between Preston and Walsall this season, and it was the Saddlers who prevailed 3-1 in their Sky Bet League 1 clash at Banks's Stadium back in September.
Walsall also recorded two 3-1 victories against North End in 2012/13 but Preston posted 3-0 and 2-1 wins over the Saddlers in the 2013/14 campaign.
The head-to-head record is tight between the pair, reading 25 Walsall wins to Preston’s 22, with the spoils being shared on 10 occasions.
Preston are without just two of their first-team regulars in Jordan Hugill and Joe Garner, who are still carrying injuries, but otherwise Simon Grayson has a full squad to pick from.
Walsall boss Smith also has a near-fully fit squad at his disposal, with defender James Chambers the only doubt after he was forced off with a bruised toe in the 2-0 defeat to Coventry at the weekend.
TOUGH TASK: Dean Smith believes Preston will provide a tough task, but takes confidence from the fact his side have already overcome them once this season.
The Sky Sports cameras will be at Deepdale to capture the action, and we'll be providing live updates from the game via the official Johnstone's Paint Trophy Twitter page - @JP_Trophy. Join in the conversation using #JPT.